Where in the hell am I?

February 5, 2013

Thoughts on the Richard III discovery

Filed under: archaeology — Tags: , , — John @ 8:40 pm

The world of archaeology made the front pages, or at least the headlines, this past weekend when British researchers confirmed that a skeleton found under a parking lot in Leicester is that of Richard III. I will admit right now to having been completely ignorant of the history of Richard III, besides knowing he was a king of England and there was a Shakespeare play. I’m from the US and have never been an Anglophile, outside of loving lots of British (and Irish and Scottish, to cover my bases) music.

The discovery and the science behind the identification is interesting enough. I’ll let you read what more qualified folks involved with bioarchaeology, like Katy Myers at Bones Don’t Lie and Dr. Kristina Killgrove at Powered by Osteons (although you’ll actually want to click THIS LINK to a Livescience article to read Dr. Killgrove’s thoughts), have to say about the science part. As far as the archaeology, one thing when working with historic sites (and personae) is that, well, there’s already a history (written records, etc.). One reason we do historical archaeology is because what is “known” frequently isn’t really what “was”. In this case, it seems like history did an accurate job of describing Richard III and documenting his death, as these elements of his life aided in the initial identification. Knowing the larger site as the location of the church where he was said to be buried also helped.

But, in general, the archaeology and science involved are really the stuff of many, many projects around the world. Forgotten cemeteries and unmarked graves (not the insidious kind) are remarkably common, even dating into the last century, particularly in the more recently Anglo-settled parts of the United States (my sphere of work).

The difference is, rarely do you have someone raising $250,000 to exhume and identify remains (much less do a facial reconstruction). This is too bad, because while it’s certainly cool that they found the lost grave of Richard III, who was in fact a hunchback and suffered a fatal head wound, it really only tells us about one person. The New York Times article (and the people who raised the funds) suggest that the find will lead to a new interest in and reappraisal of Richard III; such things certainly happen in the research and writing of history and is studied as historiography.

My question is: does it really matter? (Note: see my caveats in the opening paragraph) Does confirming the accuracy of the historical accounts regarding Richard III change the way we (as scholars and as people) understand that time period in England? Does it tell us anything about how most people lived and dies back then; does it give a history to someone who has no written account of their own? The find is significant in the sense of being related to an important person or event in the history of England, but I’m not sure it really adds any new or significant understanding to the archaeological or historical record.

Many of the British archaeologists I follow on Twitter (and the people they retweet) are excited about this new interest in heritage and archaeology, and see this as a golden opportunity to widen that interest and put more of the public in “public archaeology”. I agree, and I wish them luck!!! At the same time, I also see many tweets and retweets about budget slashing in museums and universities and wonder if that $250,000 could have been better spent. Of course, it likely could never have been raised.

It’s not just this project either, the news is full of searches for the graves and bones of famous people (Mona Lisa, anyone?), and who knows how many countless hundreds of thousands of dollars have gone to these projects. I suspect the same amount of money and enthusiasm would be difficult to obtain for a potter’s field of 15th century peasants.

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